Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Ballad of Nick Drake

Music history is littered with the dead, many of whom died young from suicide or vices.  It is therefore always interesting to wonder what if:  what if this artist had lived on?  How would he or she have changed the musical landscape?

English folk musician Nick Drake was someone who could have changed the world of late 1960s-1970s poet-balladeers.  In fact, he did change the world just in his too short span of years and three albums.  There are no live recordings of Drake, no concert films.  Just his albums—“Five Leaves Left” (1969), “Bryter Layter” (1971), and “Pink Moon” (1972)—and various demos he made containing some new material or alternate recordings of the album cuts.  He died in 1974 at the age of 26 from an overdose of anti-depressants.  There is some discrepancy over whether he was a suicide or an accidental death as he was being treated for lifelong depression and mental illness.

Drake’s music was rediscovered in the 1990s when several songs were used in commercials and on soundtracks.  The word spread, and his albums were re-released on CD, introducing a whole new audience to the pioneer whose words and music sound as current today as many other folk acts.  Now, a new book—Nick Drake:  Remembered For A While, The Authorized Companion to the Music of Nick Drake (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)—compiles journalism on Drake, essays and reviews by friends and critics, and first person accounts of his life together in one beautiful volume printed on heavy paper with restored photographs.  The tome is part coffee table book, part scrap book, and part autobiography.

The writing comes from Drake’s sister, fellow musicians, and music journalists; however, it is not a biography in the true sense of the world, as the subject remains distant, locked in his own mind so that we only catch glimpses of him through the windows offered here.  I caught the milieu, the excitement of English folk rock in the 1960s and 70s in the book, but Drake himself was illusive.  His mental difficulties kept him isolated, but they also add to the mystery of his haunting voice and lyrics.

What is clear in the book is that Drake was a monumental talent, and that given more years, may have become as important as Bob Dylan or the Beatles to the evolution of rock.  His illness limited his ability to reach a wider audience in his time, but it is also evident that his mental problems may have fueled his art.  The artist’s life is a precarious one, and fame is fleeting.  Nick Drake was the real deal, though.

The book charts his course from childhood into his years as a musician.  He signed a record contract while still at university, and included in the book is the correspondence during that time with his parents as well as his father’s journal entries about Drake’s growing mental problems.  They were remarkably supportive of their son when he considers leaving school to focus on music.  It is in their house in Warwickshire that Drake died.  They handled their difficult son as best they could, and their anguish over his death and efforts to spread his music to the world after he is gone are truly heartbreaking.  As with most musicians gone too soon, pilgrims show up at their door, and they are always glad to share their son and their memories of him with these interlopers.

The editors of the book take great pains to include extensive analysis of Drake’s music and lyrics.  One can clearly see his tentative steps in the writing on his first album.  It is “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon” that stand out as classics, especially the former.  Drake utilized unusual tunings on his guitar, and experimented with sounds and strings.  He worked hard to develop his facility with his instrument.  His voice is not magnificent, but conveys a quiet intensity that reveals his artistry.

This book is perfect for those who are fans of Nick Drake and the folk rock world of the 60s and 70s.  Others should experience Drake’s music first, and then purchase the book.  To understand the full scope of the loss of this great musician, the book is a necessity.  It is truly the definitive compilation of everything written about this singer.  It is not a biography per se, so those interested in a recounting of Drake’s life should consult some of the books already published.  However, to get inside the music and the life, to try to understand the tragic brokenness of this man, this is the book to have.  Like Drake in life, though, he remains strangely illusive in death, a bright and shining star far away across the universe.

Monday, January 12, 2015


“So how are we to wake up from the trance and dissolve the paradox of the ego?  It all comes down to the fundamental anxiety of existence, our inability to embrace uncertainty and reconcile death.”
Maria Popova

It was a dark night with forbidding clouds hanging low in the sky.  I wanted to get to the car wash after work to have my car scrubbed down and thoroughly cleaned because over the weekend, when I was filling the gas tank, the nozzle popped out of the tank and spewed gas all over me and the side of the car.  I thought I had read somewhere that gasoline ruins auto paint.  I had scrubbed it with soap and water when I got home, but I could still smell the fuel and I wanted to make sure all traces were removed.

The car wash was dark when I pulled in, but the gates were still open. I rolled to a stop near the vacuums and immediately noticed that the hoses were disconnected.  A man sat nearby in the shadows wearing all black and with his chin tucked into a coat.  He appeared to be sleeping.  I sat for a moment, waiting to see if one of the attendants would come out.  I lowered my window to listen to see if the machinery was running and realized it was quiet.  The man in the shadows spoke to me:  “You here for a wash?”


“They’ll be back in five minutes.”

I raised the window and sat in the gloomy darkness.  There was no way the attendants would be back in five minutes.  The place looked closed for the day.  I was startled out of my reverie by a fist knocking on my window.  It was an attendant.  I lowered the window and saw he was carrying a coat and a small lunch bag.  “We’re closed, dude.”

“You’re closed,” I repeated like an idiot.


I raised the window again and backed out of the vacuum area.  The man sitting in the shadows remained there, chin once again tucked into his coat.

I drove out onto the boulevard heading to my next stop, my mailbox.  The night had a surreal quality, and traffic was heavy.  People were jaywalking out of the shadows, and I strained to see them.  Cars made illegal lane changes; drivers accelerated dramatically, cut others off, screeched and slid to a stop.  Anxiety was a smell in the air.

After picking up a package at my post office box, I went to the supermarket.  I had trouble breathing and chest pain, something that had been happening far too often lately.  I picked up the items I needed and went to the checkout stand where, after the checker started totaling my order, a man pushed his cart the opposite way through the stand and started unloading his groceries.  I grabbed the front of the cart and pulled it through, telling the man, “Why don’t you let me finish since I was here first?”  It was more a statement than a question.  The man was frantically stuffing his mouth from a deli container, so he said not a word in response and simply followed his cart through and went to another check stand.  The checker was also rude, sighing heavily when I caught that he had charged me twice for an item.  He threw the receipt at me when the transaction was complete.  I took my groceries and left.

Once I got home, I found a battered red van parked crookedly in our driveway, blocking my access.  I parked down the street and left my groceries in the car while I went looking for the van’s owner.  I could feel the fire of anger and anxiety in my chest, all the tension built up on my long, traffic-clogged commute home.  All I wanted was to unload my groceries and get off my feet, but this was turning into an endless series of complications.

I found the guy at the back of the building going through the dumpster.  Trash, bottles, cans and plastic bags were spread all over the ground.  He stabbed into the green receptacle with a long metal pole, spearing pieces of garbage as if he were fishing in a pond and then shaking them off onto the pavement for examination.  I asked if the van was his—it was—and I suggested bluntly that he move it.  Now.  He was a tall, powerfully built black man about 55 or 60 years old.  I wanted to tell him he was trespassing.  I was looking to create an issue and vent some of the fire in my chest.  But as we walked back to the front of the building, something strange happened.  “So how you doing?” he asked me.  I told him that I’d been better.  “Well, when I feel that way,” he said, “I just give thanks that I can do what I do and get up every day.  Every day is a gift, you know, and there are a lot of people have it worse than me.”

Everything flashed in front of my eyes:  the new year, the stress of work and traffic and thoughtless people, the pain in my chest reminding me of my own mortality.  I could not help thinking of the finite moments we have in this life, and how we waste those moments in traffic, in obligations, in worry and anxiety.  My anger drained away with his words.  There was something magical in our meeting, some earth-shattering revelation that although obvious, I had missed and was now realizing.

At the end of our walk, I choked out a thank you, and wished him a good evening.  He parked his battered red van in another driveway down the block and walked back to the dumpster to finish his work.

My encounter reminded me of a poem by Margaret Walker called “Memory”:

I can remember wind-swept streets of cities
on cold and blustery nights, on rainy days;
heads under shabby felts and parasols
and shoulders hunched against a sharp concern;
seeing hurt bewilderment on poor faces,
smelling a deep and sinister unrest
these brooding people cautiously caress;
hearing ghostly marching on pavement stones
and closing fast around their squares of hate.
I can remember seeing them alone,
at work, and in their tenements at home.
I can remember hearing all they said:
their muttering protests, their whispered oaths,
and all that spells their living in distress

Later that evening, as I sat at my desk writing in my journal, I thought of surrender.  We must surrender to our lives.  Control is an illusion.  We are all living in distress.  We do the best that we can, and then we must let go and move on.  Most days we rise and do what we can do in the time we are allotted, and for that, we must be grateful and trust that the world is turning as it should, and that the visible darkness of our lives is simply a part of the experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Long Life

“Here you are, alive.  Would you like to make a comment?”
Mary Oliver

Here it is the dead of winter and I am reading Mary Oliver.  What a joy it is.  Her book of tiny, jewel-like essays is called Long Life:  Essays and Other Writings (Da Capo Press, 2004).  The essays are also sprinkled with poems previously unpublished, and although I prefer her poetry to her prose, I am finding both meaningful and exquisite on this January afternoon.  She is a writer profoundly influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, with notes of Emily Dickinson.  She is fine wine indeed.

Does this not sound like a Transcendentalist?  “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water.”  Or this:  “Man finds he has two halves to his existence:  leisure and occupation, and from these separate considerations he now looks upon the world.  In leisure he remembers radiance; in labor he looks for results.”

Oliver has always been the poet of spare necessity, the well-whittled phrase that sticks in the heart.  In that she is like Dickinson with the powerful image, the brutal metaphor, the stark secret.  I wrote about her previously, indeed based an entire essay around her poem, “In Blackwater Woods.”  Part of that story returned me to Stone, gone five years now.  Oliver does not avoid the mortal truth of loving a dog:  “And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life.  Dogs die so soon.  I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also.  It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels.  We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young.  The one gift we cannot give.”  She rises to a quiet, yet joyful conclusion in the face of loss keenly observed and felt—“What would this world be like without dogs?”

She addresses so much the essence of life.  I found myself drinking it in, and remaining thirsty, I went and ordered several books of her poems.  I cannot get enough.  In this group of essays, she speaks of Emerson, perfect days, of comfort and home.  “It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape—between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows.”  Quite literally, she begs us to look, to see this world in all its imperfections, fading light, yet magnificent glories.  Feel the ice and cold and sting of winter.  But Oliver is also a summer poet, regaling in the walk through the woods, the search along the shores of our lives for those irreplaceable seashells of experience that are there for our taking.  She believes it is Emerson who encourages us to seize the faith and follow, and become “a moral person from the indecisive person.”  She thinks of him when she writes “something worthy.”  It is all worthy here.  Emerson’s words seal the essay celebrating him, and with the unrest in the world, on the streets of our country, they are apt words full of meaning:  “I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice.”

The book is spare and lean, every word polished to a dazzling shine on a quiet winter’s afternoon where one can look out the window upon Dickinson’s certain slant of light.  Mary Oliver asks us to bask in the flow of seasons, the magnificent jet stream winding its way around and around the earth.  The wind, the cold, the heft of a winter’s day:  it’s all as it should be, as it must be in this life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On Censorship

It was a surreal experience this week reading Una M. Cadegan’s thoroughly researched academic text, All Good Books Are Catholic Books:  Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 2013) while watching North Korea enact its own censorship of The Interview (Columbia Pictures, 2014), forcing Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company, first to pull the film and then announce selected screenings after being hacked by cyber-terrorists working for the North Korean government.  The reports from CNN and other news organizations were a bit more interesting than the book, mainly because Cadegan deals with past censorship of another age while Sony’s predicament is in the here and now and will have far-reaching consequences in our global culture going forward.  The bottom line is that no state or church should be allowed to practice censorship in a country that accepts the right to free speech as sacred.  Yet, here we are facing textbook censorship, both in Cadegan’s book on Catholicism’s reach in the twentieth-century and today, over a decade into the twenty-first century, from a rogue nation.

Cadegan begins with an analysis of Catholic literary culture that originated around the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891).  The Church, trying to refine the world canon of literature, struggled with Transcendentalist writers and found them authentic as an American tradition of literature and therefore, acceptable.  They also affirmed the group of writers more familiar to nineteenth-century Catholic readers:  John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others.  James Joyce, a man whose work featured characters who abandoned God and their faith, suffered the wrath of the Church as the twentieth century dawned.  In addition, a considerable amount of space in the book is devoted to the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, the title of which would make any red-blooded reader want to make such an index a literal “to read” list.  Cadegan explains its origins, its development, and its propagation, which although a bit academic and dry, is interesting nonetheless.  One interesting tidbit:  “Will Durant’s life in particular was presented as an example of the dangers of forbidden reading,” Cadegan writes, “as he admitted publicly that he had lost his faith through reading a wide range of works, regardless of whether they had been approved by the Church.”

The main problem with the Catholic hierarchy was not film or illicit reading per se, but its losing battle with modernity and a changing world.  Cadegan gives a thorough airing of the subject of modernity, but the topic has been fairly well documented over the decades of the 1960s through 2000s, especially after the Second Vatican Council.  As Cadegan points out, there were many forces acting to pull the Church forward, such as John F. Kennedy telling a group of ministers in his campaign speech of 1960 that censorship was on his list of issues about which he “would not be influenced by the Vatican.”

Cadegan’s book contains twenty-three pages of notes and an index.  It is well-researched, but I missed a more narrative approach.  The Catholic Church did play a role in censorship of reading material, films, and television during the twentieth-century, but an academic rendering of facts and citations to other scholarly research may not appeal to the person looking for a story about how the Church influenced popular culture during that century.  However, the signs are all around that censorship continues to be a defining issue of our time made more so by the rise of technology.  The Church struggles to keep up as our children are more influenced by social media and the internet.  They may no longer go to the local Cineplex or watch television in the traditional way those of us who are part of a certain generation once did.  But that is the subject for another book like Cadegan’s analyzing the twenty-first century.  Undoubtedly, the current situation with North Korea’s seemingly long reach into American culture will be part of that discussion as well as the rise of social media as new efforts to censor what we see, read and hear continue to emerge in this digital age.